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ADHD's Upside: Greater Creativity?

By Maureen Salamon
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 17 (HealthDay News) -- The distractibility and impulsiveness that is the hallmark of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have a silver lining, according to a new study that suggests those with the disorder are more creative than those without.

Researchers gave 60 college students, half with ADHD, a series of tests measuring creativity across 10 domains -- drama, music, humor, creative writing, invention, visual arts, scientific discovery, dance, architecture and culinary arts. The students also answered questions about their problem-solving styles, including preferences for generating, structuring, refining and implementing ideas.

The ADHD group scored higher on creativity across the board, the study authors said, and also exhibited a greater preference for brainstorming and generating ideas than the non-ADHD group, which preferred refining and clarifying ideas.

The study, a follow-up to one conducted in 2006, is published in the April issue of Personality and Individual Differences.

"Personality traits like stubbornness could be seen as a negative thing or it could be seen as a strength . . . and I think it's similar with distraction," said study author Holly A. White, an assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But it can also mean they're open to a lot of new ideas coming in. It allows for collisions of ideas we otherwise might not see."

ADHD, affecting approximately 5 percent of American youths, is a neurobehavioral disorder characterized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity, disorganization and difficulty focusing, among other traits. The condition persists into adulthood in 30 percent to 50 percent of those affected.

The 60 University of Memphis students, whose average age was 20, were split roughly equally between men and women. Half of the ADHD group was taking stimulant medication to treat the condition at the time of the research.

White said the new study confirms prior research indicating that the lack of inhibition ADHD patients display translates into out-of-the-box thinking. And contrary to perception, she added, people with ADHD are often able to pay rapt attention to a subject or activity if it's something they love.

"I really do believe while ADHD [defines] limitations in some areas, in others it can be a strength," White said.

"It's especially difficult for them to do something they don't enjoy, so they may be misidentified as lazy or unintelligent, which is not the case at all," White added. "When they're enthusiastic and motivated about something, the ADHD seems to disappear."

Armed with these findings, young people with ADHD might be better able to seek careers suited to their strengths and weaknesses, or to pursue fields that are intrinsically motivating, where they would be most productive, the authors said.

But Richard Milich, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kentucky, said the study may not represent typical youths with ADHD because participants were only comprised of college students.

"That means there's a whole group of ADHD kids who didn't go to college who would never be in this study," said Milich, who has studied the disorder for decades. "These are people in college, so they've already crossed the main hurdle."

He also pointed out that prior research indicates those with ADHD tend to exaggerate their skill set, so the self-evaluations used in this study may have skewed the results.

"It's very hard to measure this whole topic," Milich said. "The evidence is clear they have an inflated view of self-efficacy. I don't see how this translates to better achievement."

But White and Milich agreed that ADHD medication, which is designed to dampen troublesome symptoms, may also dampen creativity as a result.

"We want to find that line between being grounded and having their heads in the clouds," White said.

"Mental illness overlapping with inspiration is something I think has always been true," White added. "But it could be a creative advantage and potentially is a gift."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about ADHD.

SOURCES: Holly A. White, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Fla.; Richard Milich, Ph.D., professor, clinical psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington; April 2011 Personality and Individual Differences

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